Johnson Derangement Syndrome consumes his enemies, who can see no good in him, and his friends, who can see no bad, or none that isn’t outweighed by his jokes, animal spirits and zest for life.
So it may be savvier to take a cool view – as we read that he is ready to return from a beach holiday, itself taken during Parliamentary termtime, so that the Conservative Party can return him to the premiership from which Tory MPs ejected him, scarcely more than three months ago.
I swore a mighty oath some 25 years ago, when working as Comment Editor at the Daily Telegraph, that I would never succumb to JDS – no matter how many articles Johnson delivered late at the witching hour. So let me keep my promise by setting out, first, the potential advantages of his return.
As I write, the electoral wizard that is Elizabeth Truss has reduced the Conservatives to 21 points in Politicos Poll of Polls, with Labour currently on 53 per cent. Punch those figures into Electoral Calculus, give the Liberal Democrats 20 per cent of the vote for fun, and you have Labour on a 392 majority and the Conservatives on 11 seats.
No, I don’t believe that even Truss would have delivered a Canadian-type wipeout for the Tories, but they could be looking at opposition for a generation. It is reasonable to believe that Johnson could quickly get the Tory vote back to where he took it – the low 30s. That would suggest a mere 1997-type wipeout.
He might be able to push it higher. For Johnson is dazzling at dealing with a crisis or rather, strictly speaking, delivering a simple response to a complex event: for Brexit, there is a deal; for Covid, a vaccine; for Ukraine, guns for the Ukrainians and butter for Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The complex event now dominating the political landscape is economic turbulence. And the nearest thing to a simple response will be the forthcoming Budget. Ask Johnson what he’d like in any financial statement with which he will be associated, and you will get a cakeist answer: tax cuts, spending increases, bridges, statues (of himself).
Nonetheless, even Johnson’s ozymandian powers are incapable of making water run uphill, or of cutting tax when taxes must rise, of raising spending when it must be cut. The first duty of a new Johnson Chancellor would be to deliver the most unboosterish British Budget ever.
Admittedly, there would be a rough justice in a new Johnson premiership having to face up to the consequences of the last one. Do I hear you complain about taxes reaching a record high, and point a finger at the Chancellor on duty? But what about the Prime Minister who appointed the Chancellor in the first place?
It would be grimly appropriate were Johnson to take responsibility for the problems that he left Truss to deal with. To be fair to him, he didn’t want to do so: he is the last man to abandon his grip on power. And to be doubly fair, he had and has still a kind of mandate, having led the Conservatives to victory in 2019 with their biggest majority for over 30 years.
But only a kind, because of the way that Parliamentary government works. We don’t elect a president. Indeed, we don’t put in a Prime Minister. We elect MPs from constituencies, usually on a party basis. The party that can form a majority in the Commons then decides the basis on which it will govern.
Usually, that demands supporting the party leader. But occasionally – perhaps I should say frequently, given the events of the last few year – his party’s MPs junk him, as they have a right to do. And the bald fact is that enough Tory MPs decided, only a few weeks ago, that Johnson had to go as to make his position impossible.
The reason wasn’t Christopher Pincher doing whatever he did in the Carlton Club; or Downing Street wallpaper; or the Covid parties in Downing Street – or even the Prime Minister becoming the first in history found to have committed a criminal act in office.
“What will worry them most is a growing view that Number Ten can’t stick to anything and doesn’t tell the truth – not so much to voters (which I’m afraid they will take more or less for granted), but to them, whether the matter to hand is Downing Street wallpaper, parties, Afghan dogs, Paterson, “buyer’s remorse” or the football Superleague.”
That sentence is from an article I wrote for this site last December, called “A vote of confidence in Johnson has suddenly become more likely than not”. That speculation turned out to be on the money, and this explanation may throw light on what happens next.
It isn’t clear as I write whether or not Johnson really intends to stand in the forthcoming leadership election. Perhaps he is undertaking the equivalent of writing his two pre-Brexit referendum campaign articles, one for, one against – weighing up the options. But either way, he is doing what he always does: seizing the limelight. And if he stands after all, he will probably win.
At which point, Conservative poll ratings perhaps rise to the low 30s. But what then? What would the other 70 per cent make of it? First, Johnson made the Tories a comedy. Then Truss turned them into a laughing stock. A Johnson return would risk emptying the theatre altogether, as most of the public run screaming for the exits.
After forcing out Johnson, replacing him with someone worse and then bringing him back again, most voters would respond: “kindly leave the stage”. Conservative members may not grasp the extent to which their party is becoming a joke – here and abroad. The very word “conservative” risks becoming unmentionable in polite society (indeed, in any kind of society at all).
A certain type of enthusiast for Red Wall conservatism looks back to the winter of 2019, and sees Johnson being carried shoulder-high in triumph through Burnley, Leigh and Hartlepool. But that happy world is dead – killed by the cost of living crisis. Look at how Johnson’s ratings square off against Keir Starmer’s, or ponder James Johnson’s wordcloud above.
The thought occurs that maybe the Conservative Party no longer cares. Perhaps the sum of its ambition is to become the provisional wing of the right-wing entertainment industry: happy to preach to a diminishing band of true believers, and good for a newspaper column or fringe TV turn, while Keir Starmer gets on with the tiresome business of actually running the country.
If so, it can look forward to a Prime Minister staffing his government with fifth raters, since the bulk of the 66 Ministers who resigned in the summer will refuse to serve. If a by-election forced by a Commons suspension doesn’t get him. If the Tory benches don’t first vote down the report into his conduct that would trigger it, thus speeding the spiral of decline.
The Germans have a word for it: Totentanz – a dance of death. Conservative MPs, peers, donors, hacks and activists caper owards an open grave, with Death himself – sorry, Johnson – leading the procession. The dance possesses them; it has a momentum of its own; they are powerless to stop.
“The details of this manoeuvre are exceedingly complicated, but the essence is simple,” writes Paul Johnson. “On the one side shifting and divided aims, and an inability to focus on the real essentials of power; on the other, an unwavering aim and a firm grasp of realities.”